Workers repair flood damage to the bed of the BNSF Railway in northwest Missouri in the fall of 2019. Rules require that limestone fill be used not just on structures like the railroad but to fill holes left in agricultural fields. That’s expensive and means the repair can’t be used for agriculture. (Photo by Richard Oswald)

Limestone is present beneath almost every county in the state of Missouri. Its uses vary from neutralizing acidic soil to low-cost surfacing on rural roads. But here at Langdon, as in all the other Missouri River valley communities impacted by last year’s flooding, we are using limestone rock for filler. 

We have holes in our roads, holes in our highways, holes in our levees, and holes in our railroad mainline roadways. Starting with the railroad in late April right up through today, we’ve been filling all those holes with millions of tons of limestone because rocks stay put better, and they don’t compact and settle the way clay-based soil does. Also, limestone is nearly pure calcium, while foreign soil is considered a contaminant.

Those are the rules, and rules cost money. 

Thanks to special government consideration, the BNSF (Burlington Northern Santa Fe) Railway, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, and the Department of Transportation have the money. 

Crews work during the summer of 2019 on the Highway 2 “pinch point,” where the river rises from constricted flow. (Photo by Richard Oswald)

For smaller government entities like our Langdon Special Road District, where every single one of our 14 miles of limestone surfaced roads were affected, Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has money which they dole out at the rate of 75 cents on every dollar’s worth of repairable damage. The other 25 cents comes from our tiny treasury, or as aid from other government agencies or private donors. 

As a result of the 2019 flood, some farmers have holes in their fields. For us, just as for most private individuals, buying and hauling thousands of tons of rock to fill in a hole is cost prohibitive. Besides, you can’t grow corn in a pile of rock. So in most farm fields where river blow holes materialized, either as the river entered the flood plain through one levee or exited through another, no crop will ever grow again—and no farmer will ever farm again. 

The Corps has the sweetest deal of all. They receive government funding to manage the river and maintain its levees. And when levees fail, they’re funded to fix the levees. This year they got over $3 billion in funding just to fix what was washed away. 

That buys a lot of rocks. 

Opinions of our epic floods—this was the second in less than a decade— vary as to cause. Climate change is high on the list for soggy snowflakes like me who say excess precipitation, whipsawing temperatures, and frequent 500-year floods have become the new normal. Antiquated flood-control systems exacerbated by rigidly redundant river management of the Corps has to bear some blame, too. That’s why Missouri Governor Mike Parsons has formed an advisory group of involved Missouri citizens to emphasize the importance of flood recovery, by repairing and improving Missouri river levees.

In 2011workers fill a damaged roadway with limestone. (Photo by Richard Oswald)

Of special interest to me is the governor’s support of a setback levee in my Missouri county, Atchison, where we have one of the highest, deepest river gauge readings of anywhere along the Missouri. The Brownville, Nebraska, reading just across the river is always about 10 feet higher than readings above and below it. That’s because where the bridge on Highway 136 at Brownville crosses the river, it causes a pinch point. That narrowing of the area between levees on one side of the river and bluffs on the other force the water higher to accommodate its volume. Levee setbacks there would widen the flood plain, helping large volumes of water to flow at lower levels past Brownville. That should remove some pressure on levees in Missouri as well as the Nebraska Public Power District, whose Cooper Nuclear Power Station sits precariously next to the river just south of Brownville. 

A similar pinch project exists north of here in Iowa on Highway 2 near Percival, Iowa, and Nebraska City Nebraska. That pinch point, which is nearly complete, will be tested for the first time this spring, when the Army Corps and the National Weather Service say flooding is a sure thing … again. 

Levee setbacks would accomplish what original flood control architects failed to do. They will allow room for increased flow due to rainfall, snowmelt, higher release volumes from upstream dams, or dam failures like that of Spencer Dam last spring. That’s when all of the above created the highest flow rate below Gavins Point dam in recorded history. That wildfire flood damaged my previously high-and-dry, 80-year-old river-bottom farm home as well as many other homes. It also destroyed many thousands of bushels of grain and grain storage structures, buildings, and farm and irrigation equipment in the valley. 

So far Governor Parsons and others positioned in our government to help have had little to say about improving the Army Corps’ management of the river, including pools behind 15 mainstream Missouri River dams in Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, and Nebraska.   

A downpour descends from a distant cloud in the summer of 2019, adding to the water already flooding northwest Missouri. (Photo by Richard Oswald)

The river operations manual is followed to the letter by the Army Corps of Engineers, which is why during every one of their briefings they never fail to say everything is going according to plan. Releasing an overburden of upstream water sure to create downstream floods is merely adhering to the rules. 

For years we’ve heard that opening the Army Corps’ operations manual to revision is dangerous for farmers because environmentalists and recreationists would use it as an opportunity to gain even more control over private property to their own ends. That’s what happened last time the manual was changed. Lending credence to this argument is the fact that a Missouri environmental group criticized Governor Parsons’ flood working group because his group didn’t include conservation advocates. They wanted a voice to argue for converting flooded private land to the marshy public domain.   

But here, around Langdon, for pessimists and optimists alike, it’s not that the glass is half empty or half full. That’s because these days the way the government does things, the glass is running over. 

Richard Oswald is a fifth-generation Missouri farmer from Langdon. He is membership and policy director for the Missouri Farmers Union.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story included a photograph that was misidentified as the Highway 2 “pinch point.” The story has been updated to include the correct photograph.

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